By JENNA FRYER
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Just like last season, Jimmie Johnson enters the next-to-last race with a seven-point lead in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. He came up empty in his bid for a sixth title last year, but is more confident about his chances following Sunday’s dominating victory at Texas.
With Matt Kenseth in his rearview mirror, that could be a false sense of security.
Johnson lost the title a year ago to Brad Keselowski, who didn’t flinch during his first title fight. He went toe-to-toe with the most dominant driver of his generation, and he and Johnson swapped the lead four times in the waning laps at Texas. Johnson won the race, Keselowski finished second and Johnson left with a seven-point lead in the standings as they headed into Phoenix, one of Keselowski’s worst tracks on the tour.
But Johnson had a tire failure in Phoenix and Keselowski finished sixth. Then a mechanical problem for Johnson at Homestead sealed Keselowski’s first championship.
The chances of back-to-back meltdowns for Johnson again this year are pretty slim. And after Sunday’s rout in Texas, Johnson is cruising into Phoenix feeling far better than he did a year ago.
“I’m optimistic. I feel good,” he said. “But, man, it’s so weird, because I’ve been in position before where I’ve had these amazing sensations and feelings that a championship was going to happen, and we were able to do it for those five years in a row. There were other years where I had those feelings, and it didn’t happen. Last year was another good example of us taking control late in the Chase, and then that ended with two bad races.
“I guess the lesson in all of that is I’m not counting on anything. I’m going to work real hard and train my butt off. Stay in this little world that I’ve been living in for the last five or six months and show up ready to go these next two weeks.”
That would be the smart play because Kenseth is not Keselowski.
“I think we were in great shape last year,” crew chief Chad Knaus said. “I think we’re in as good or maybe just a pinch better shape this year, though I do feel the opponent is a little more formidable than what we had last year.”
Kenseth has been on this stage before. He won the championship in 2003, under the old format when points were collected over an entire season. The Chase was born the next season, and Kenseth raced for the title in year three, when Johnson finally claimed his first championship. Kenseth finished second in 2006 and Johnson began his tear of a record five consecutive championships.
There were some lean seasons along the way for Kenseth, who parted with longtime crew chief Robbie Reiser at the end of 2007 and promptly went winless in 2008. He opened 2009 with back-to-back wins, yet still missed the Chase and finished 14th in the final standings.
Kenseth was winless again in 2010, but had his second Daytona 500 victory in 2012. But by the middle of that year, he had decided to move to Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of the season after 13 seasons with Jack Roush.
Seven wins later, he’s breathing down Johnson’s neck in a two-driver race for the Sprint Cup title that has the No. 48 team on its toes.
But Knaus was eager to see how the Joe Gibbs Racing group rebounded following Sunday’s race at Texas, where Kenseth had to rally from a speeding penalty that dropped him from second to 16th to salvage a fourth-place finish.
It was the best he could do on a day when Johnson was in a different zip code. Johnson led 255 of the 334 laps, beat teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the checkered flag by 4.390 seconds and broke what had been a tie atop the standings between him and Kenseth.
“That’s going to be interesting to see. I think Matt’s the strongest player on that team,” Knaus said. “I think he’s the glue that holds that thing together, so we’ll just have to see what happens. I feel if we stay focused on what we’ve got to do, then we’ll let the chips fall where they may.”
It’s never been Johnson’s style to play mind games. He doesn’t have to because he lets his performance on the track do the talking for him. But Knaus seemed to take a veiled shot at JGR, which has had its share of collapses over the years.
Its last championship was in 2005, when Tony Stewart went down to the wire with Johnson and a tire failure in the finale sealed Johnson’s fate. Kyle Busch has been a contender several times since for JGR but has never put together a complete season, and Denny Hamlin coughed away the title in 2010 when he had Johnson on the ropes.
Perhaps the hope is that the No. 20 team will go the way of so many JGR performances before them, and Johnson feels as if he’s in good shape because his Hendrick Motorsports group has been there and done this, through good and bad, and after losing in 2011 and 2012, he’s not going to lose again.
But Knaus already acknowledged the opponent this year is more formidable than last year, and Kenseth proved that two weeks ago in Martinsville, where he gave pep talk after pep talk to his crew. He talked to his team about strategy, he implored them to give him good pit stops and he left one of his worst tracks with a second-place finish.
It’s doubtful Kenseth is going to let his team fall apart, and Knaus knows that very well.
“I think Matt, just from his personality standpoint, is a little more controlled. He’s a little more mature,” Knaus said. “He’s been in the sport for a long time. I think he’s just a little more even keel, so that makes him a little more challenging to get off kilter, off rocker, so we’ll have to see how it shakes out come Phoenix.”